Head coach Rhonda Riley took the helm a year ago looking to mold a Blue Devil team full of freshmen and sophomores.    

Entering her second year, Riley once again sports a roster without a senior presence. But this time, Duke has a core group of runners that have been through a whole season together and are looking to make major strides up the ACC standings.    

“I didn’t have juniors or seniors last year,” Riley said. “I had just freshman and sophomores, so I just had underclassmen and I think that was the biggest challenge, not having that sense of leadership I have this year.”    

Juniors Liz Lansing and Olivia Gwynn will provide much of this leadership as the Blue Devils’ captains. As a whole, Duke will have a number of familiar faces on the course, as the Blue Devils lost only one runner from last season and return all six runners that raced in the ACC cross country championships last year.    

The effort to build team camaraderie is already under way after a trip last weekend to Zap Fitness  in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Blowing Rock, N.C. In addition to training on the trails, the trip provided Riley and volunteer assistant coach Daniel Goetz the opportunity to spend time with their group before the start of classes.    

But perhaps the biggest plus for Duke this season will be its depth after the program received six commitments in Riley’s first recruiting class.    

“We have a lot more depth than we had last year,” Riley said. “We only had 11 girls running and I have 16 right now, so the approach is definitely to pack up more into a team into that mentality, which I wasn’t really able to do last year.”    

The incoming class is highlighted in particular by Michaela Reinhart and Amanda Beach—who placed 12th at the 2016 Cross Country Foot Locker National meet. Samantha Peterman, Sara Platek, Leigha Torino and Helen Williams round out the rest of the class for the Blue Devils.     

Duke will also welcome back All-ACC performer Sophia Parvizi-Wayne following a strong freshman season. The sophomore is looking to rebound after back spasms prevented her from finishing the 6,000-meter race at the NCAA Southeast Regional a year ago. The London native will look to build on her 15th place finish in the ACC cross country championships and qualify for the NCAA championship this fall.    

“My two freshman Michaela Reinhart and Amanda Beach, those are two girls that are going to make a huge impact right away,” Riley said. “From the returners, Sophia Parvizi-Wayne, she was my number one last year and she’s in great shape, so she’s going to be another huge person for us.”    

With all of their major contributors from last season returning, the Blue Devils are hoping that strong finishes to the year from Gabrielle Richichi and Lindsay Billings will carry over in 2017-18. Richichi finished her sophomore year with a personal best in the 6,000 meters to earn a top-50 finish, along with Billings, in the NCAA Southeast Regional.    

After failing to crack the top 10 in the ACC championship a year ago, Duke once again faces stiff competition at the top of the conference. But this time, the Blue Devils are in store for fewer surprises, as both Riley and her captains have seen the ups-and-downs of a whole season together.   

“Definitely improving on last year’s finish at ACCs is a goal,” Riley said. “Realistically, if we were to throw out numbers, we would be really happy with top five, so that’s kind of a goal we’re shooting for.”    

Although the goal seems lofty on paper, Duke will hope that its young team can continue to build the foundation of an ACC contender this season regardless of results.